Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Snowmageddon 2014 and Localism

I have learned a lesson this year, early in the year though it is.  For those who haven't heard, my fair city, Atlanta, has been shut down by what is jokingly being referred to as "Snowmageddon" or the "Snowpocalypse."  Please spare me the jokes from my friends up North about how a few inches of ice shuts down a Southern city.  We didn't make fun of you when Superstorm Sandy came through your towns recently.  It turns out preparedness often correlates with frequency.

At any rate, that is not the topic of this post.  Rather, the lesson I learned involves localism.  For the last 8 years, I have worked in Midtown Atlanta.  Very close to where these photos were taken.  But I live West of the city, about 30 miles from where my office was.  That isn't a long way, but the problem is, with Atlanta's sprawl and traffic congestion, it meant an hour-plus commute.  And if anything -- ANYTHING -- went wrong, I ended up driving a couple of hours or more to get home.  In January, I opened up my own office in Dallas, Georgia, just 10 miles from my house.  I did so in part because I wanted to practice in the community where I live instead of commuting into town to practice in an area where I do not live.  10 miles isn't particularly "local," but it's a step in the right direction.

So yesterday, when the snow first hit, I had been downtown for a client meeting, then I came back through Marietta (north of the city and about 10 miles due East from where I live) to run an errand, and the plan was to go to my office until the snow came.  I arrived in Marietta about 10:30 AM, and the snow was already pretty heavy, so I called my wife and told her I was going to run to the office to pick up a couple of files and head back home.  She needed me to run an errand on the way home, so I did that.  I left the office at about 11:45 AM, and I got home around 1:00.  The drive to my street took about 45 minutes, but the drive to the store (about 2 miles away) and back added 30 minutes to my commute.

A typical street near where I used to work
After I arrived home, I watched, first in mild amusement, but eventually in horror, as my friends who work in town or close to it ended up driving 5, 6, 8, 10 or more hours to get home.  Some of them didn't make it.  Some of them didn't get home until this morning.  At least a few slept in their cars last night.  Had I worked yesterday in the same location I worked last month, I would have been among them.  A huge part of the reason this was such a disaster is urban sprawl.  We simply don't live where we work and work where we live anymore.  Atlanta is a poster child for urban sprawl.  We seem to embrace it.

Having spent the last 8 years making this incredible commute, and now having spent only a month going against the grain of traffic for a much shorter commute, I can attest to the numerous benefits of the local commute.  My stress level is much lower.  Even yesterday, as bad as it was, I was home in time to play outside with the kids, build a fire, eat my wife's wonderful snow ice cream, enjoy a cup of coffee, and still get some work done.  On a normal day, when my commute is 15-20 minutes, and I can get the kids on the bus, leave my house later, come home for lunch if I like, spend some time talking to the people who work near me, and so forth, the benefits are much greater.  I am part of a community.  I have a stake in what happens here.  And because of those things, I take an interest in what goes on around me.  Instead of seeing my neighbor as some guy who cut me off in traffic, or who is driving too slow and keeping me from seeing my kids, he is a flesh and blood person with whom I can have a conversation and actually interact.  This affects my perception of those around me and how I deal with them.  I saw this in direct action yesterday as the people in my neighborhood organized to provide shelter to our fellow neighbors stuck in traffic.  Or those who needed kids picked up or watched until their parents got home.  Or those who needed to park cars on flat driveways so they wouldn't slide into the street, or get to the store or school on a 4-wheeler.  The community came together to help those in need.  How much more would we do so if those neighbors most in need of help were not imprisoned in a job working many miles from their home, embracing urban sprawl because that's where the jobs are, and that's how they can afford to live?  What if we all made it a point to deal locally where possible instead of sending our dollars to the lowest bidder?  What if we did business with our neighbors, and they did business with us?

The view from my office at 11:30 AM yesterday
More to the point of this blog, because I am now local, I can spend more time attending to spiritual matters.  I can get to Church on time for weeknight liturgies without stressing over what people will think of me leaving the office before 6:30 (both because I am now the only person who cares, and because I can actually leave at 6:30 and still make it to Church on time).  It is easier to make time for morning and evening prayers.  It is easier for me to interact with my wife and children, especially in spiritual matters.  Because my wife has been helping me at the office, it is easier for us to interact with each other.  And because we are working toward the same goal, it is easier for us to be on the same page and act as partners rather than being at cross purposes because I am gone 12 hours a day and she is at home with the kids all day trying to manage the household.  When she needs help, I'm now here instead of an hour away, so we have the ability to cooperate and help each other.  It is easier to attend to local charities and causes, and to be attentive to my neighbor, since I am actually here instead of stuck in an office an hour or more away.  I am a neighbor now, and I view my neighbors as such instead of as nuisances or strangers.

I fully acknowledge this is easy for me to say.  I have been blessed with the education and resources to make a move like this.  To be a local businessman instead of a cog in a corporate machine.  To be a part of my neighborhood instead of someone who commutes in to work, and then back out to "live" (such as a life spent going to bed and then waking up again can be called "living").  Not everyone has this ability.  But what if we as a country began to change our view of what it means to be a neighbor?  What if we embraced localism, community, neighborhood, neighbors?  What if we rejected the idea that living in one place and commuting an hour away to another simply to earn a little more money is the best way to live?

In short, in less than a month, I have seen firsthand how much Atlanta is a poster child for what is wrong with America.  And I am very glad to have taken a step away from that.  Glory to God for all things.